Roger W. “Buck” Hill, affectionately known as “The Wailin’ Mailman” for keeping his day job for the United States Postal Service even as he wowed audiences with his jazz saxophone, died of natural causes at his home in Greenbelt on Monday. The tenor player had just turned 90.
“He went in peace,” said Hill’s son-in-law, Cedric Fryar. “He was happy right on down to the end. He just went to sleep and didn’t wake up… The doctor said it was just his age.”
The nonagenarian cast one of the longest shadows on D.C.’s jazz scene. His distinctive sound—polished, salty, with a swagger not of cocksure braggadocio but dead earnestness—reigned supreme here for half a century.
Born in Northeast Washington on Feb. 13, 1927, Hill began playing saxophone at 13, and played his first professional gigs at 16, in 1943 (with a high school friend, future Miles Davis drummer Jimmy Cobb). He graduated from Armstrong High School two years later, did a stint in the Army (where he played in the 173rd Ground Force Band), then returned to Washington where he married his wife, the former Helen Weaver, and started a family. To support them, he took a job as a mailman in the city.
All the same, by the mid-1950s, Hill was known as perhaps the best saxophonist in D.C., a scene that at the time included such fellow travelers as Charlie Rouse, Frank Wess, and Benny Golson. He was a member of guitarist Charlie Byrd’s band, in which capacity he served a long residency at the Showboat Lounge on 18th Street NW. He was famously lethal on jam session stages, customarily batting with jazz giant Sonny Stitt whenever the latter came through town. NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath took particular delight in watching him take on all comers. “A lot of cats came into D.C. who were heralded, who played the horn—alto and tenor—and nobody warned them about Buck Hill,” Heath was quoted as saying. “Man, you get into a jam session with Buck Hill, you gonna come out skinned up.”
Hill was widely respected in the jazz community, and not only on the local level. He sat in with the star musicians who toured through town, including Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, and Cannonball Adderley. In the late ‘50s, he sat in with Miles Davis, taking the place of Davis’s regular tenor John Coltrane, and impressed the trumpet legend enough to offer him a place on the tour. Hill declined—he needed his postal job. He kept it until 1998.
Hill was a prolific recording artist, though he got a late start under his own name—in 1978, at the age of 51. He made 12 recordings as a leader, and nearly two dozen more with Byrd, vocalist Shirley Horn, and other local musicians. Among the lattermost, he was naturally a titan, Washington’s greatest saxophonist by acclamation. He was a formidable composer as well, authoring a number of celebrated tunes including “The Sad Ones,” “Scope,” and “I’m Aquarius.”
According to Fryar, Hill had been undergoing a physical decline for several years, including a heart bypass and prostate surgery. He had been in and out of a nursing home during that time, though at his passing he had been home for more than a year. He hadn’t performed in public for around five years—and hadn’t picked up his horn even at home in at least one. “He just didn’t feel like playing it,” said Fryar.
Hill is survived by Helen, his wife of 68 years; three children; and dozens, if not hundreds, of musicians who can boast of having played with, or been mentored by, the Wailin’ Mailman.